I-TEAM: Potential dangers of children swallowing water beads

Published: Feb. 9, 2023 at 5:56 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - A recent water bead recall from Target caught the attention of our I-TEAM.

The small toy grows in size once water is added, but if ingested, it can grow inside the body and cause life-threatening blockages.

When the I-TEAM tracked down our local poison control centers, we found a rise in cases across the River Region of local children swallowing these beads.

The I-TEAM’s Will Rioux breaks down the potential dangers for local parents and caregivers.

We asked for three years of data from Georgia and South Carolina Poison Control Centers, and there is no doubt.

Both report an increase in cases in 2022 compared to two previous years. We found a 145% increase in calls in Georgia alone.

Five of those calls came from our area in the last 12 months.

One baby’s story about swallowing a water bead in Maine went viral on Tik Tok.

Kennedy’s Mom posted she was told her 9-month-old baby may not survive. She ultimately needed several surgeries after the water bead caused a blockage.

The story even spurred a reaction from Target, where she bought the Chuckle and Roar water beads for her older autistic son.

Target told the I-TEAM in a written statement “we are treating this situation very seriously. We have removed this product…while we address these concerns with the vendor.”

But the I-TEAM checked Target’s website and found the same brand’s water beads STILL for sale in a different sensory bin activity kit marketed to older kids.

Target also still carries other brands and warns they are a choking hazard for children under three.

And it’s not just Target. Water beads are available at most major retailers including Amazon where we bought some to demonstrate how much they grow in size when water is added.

All pose a potential danger to children if ingested.

“But what they look for would be a bloated, hard stomach not having bowel movements like they would normally not eating, feeling nauseated or even vomiting.” Dr. Jill Michels is the Managing Director of the Palmetto Poison Center.

She’s also a pharmacist and board-certified toxicologist.

The I-TEAM looked at three years of calls into her poison control center and found nearly half of all the calls came most recently in 2022.

Data shows 58% of the total calls were from children under two.

In Georgia, 2022 recorded a 145% spike in calls over water bead ingestion compared to the two years before.

Four of those calls came from Richmond County and another from Columbia County.

Dr. Michels says she’s seen enough to know all water beads should be required to come with a written warning on the packaging dangers of ingesting them.

“Or the warning would help it if ingested, this could cause a blockage in the body. So, I think, yes, it should be on there so people can be aware of the potential dangers. It’s small kids with these.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics warned as far back as 2016 “Water-absorbing gel beads look like candy so children may be tempted to swallow them… When the tiny hard plastic balls are placed in water, they can grow up to 200 times their size…Because they look like candy, children may be tempted to swallow them. Children also have put them in their ears.”

The ITEAM found more moms sharing their own stories on social media trying to save other families their heartache.

Ashley Haugen took it a step further, founding That Water Bead Lady. The nonprofit runs a blog online to educate others on the dangers.

“Kipley was diagnosed with toxic brain encephalopathy due to acrylamide, monomer poisoning from ingestion of water beads.”

Ashley says Kipley was only 10 months old when she swallowed a water bead that was a birthday gift to her then-6-year-old sister.

Her symptoms started with a rash, and within weeks she was violently vomiting.

“After numerous tests and no answers, the surgeon decided to make a bold move, and he rushed Kipley into the operating room for emergency exploratory surgery. We didn’t see Kipley swallow anything, so we were shocked when the surgeon showed us the picture of the water material he found in her small intestine.”

Beyond the blog, she advocates for caregivers, pediatricians, and even the consumer product safety commission where Ashley testified to the Commissioner last December.

“It disrupted our entire family. It disrupted the trajectory of her life. It’s it is something that no family should have to go through.”

It’s important to keep in mind that what may be okay for you to touch isn’t necessarily safe once it’s inside your body. And this water bead before hydration is added is like a seed.

It’s so small. people we spoke with relayed you can be attentive and right there and still miss your kid swallowing one before they balloon in size in the digestive tract. For that reason, Dr. Michels suggests only letting kids be around them once they’ve been hydrated and not when they’re so microscopic in size.